Veterans Day 2019: WWII veteran shares story with McNicholas community

Each year on November 11, Americans bow their heads in gratitude towards their veterans. Men and women dutifully serve in five branches of the military: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. In what was originally called Armistice Day, which was named after the signing of the Armistice which ended World War I, Americans gave thanks and their respect to the men and woman who gave their lives for our country. Armistice Day was later dubbed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all of America’s veterans.

Over the last several years, McNicholas has hosted a Veterans Day assembly and breakfast to honor veterans, specifically the ones who are part of the McNicholas community. “Because we’ve lost so many of our grads to military conflicts, we have the assembly to honor them,” said Social Studies Department Chair Pat Stricker. This year’s key note speaker was WWII veteran Army Command Sergeant Major Henry “Hank” Armstrong, who was introduced by Army Colonel Todd Mayer, a parent of three McNicholas grads and who was responsible for McNicholas’ participation in Soaring Valor in April 2019.

Students have the opportunity to invite a veteran as a small thank you to everything they have done for us and our country. “This year, we have invited the World War II Veterans who we accompanied on the Soaring Valor trip in New Orleans,” Stricker said.

“[The war] was very humbling because I volunteered for selfish reasons,” said WWII Army Veteran Walter Oka who joined the military toward the end of the war. At thirteen and a half years old, Oka witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor first hand from his front porch, realizing exactly what had happened when a Japanese plane flew over his house and he could see the insignia. He watched as dive bombers bombed the USS Arizona, a battleship built for the United States Navy. “I will never forget that sound,” Oka said. As a Japanese American, his role in the military was one of a translator. “The government didn’t trust us, even though they recruited us,” he said.

WWII Navy Veteran Bill Ernst enlisted in 1942 where he was stationed in San Diego, California in the medical corps. “They put me in the medical corps with the Marines, and I was stationed in 2-3 different hospitals for training,” Ernst said. After a year, Ernst was back with the Navy, working on the USS Sturgis. Ernst travelled with Douglas MacArthur, commander in the Southwest Pacific, to the peace signing at Pearl Harbor. When the war was over, Ernst returned to the USS Sturgis.

Command Sergeant Major Henry “Hank” Armstrong served for 41 years in the United States Army. Armstrong enlisted when he was eighteen in 1943, and after training, joined a pack artillery unit working with mules. He later trained as a field artillery observer, becoming part of a seven-man team. The group landed on Omaha beach and marched through France, Germany, and into Austria where they stumbled upon a concentration camp. “[We were] scared to death, seven kids on their first combat mission,” Armstrong said. Armstrong met three young men in the concentration camp who he befriended. Later in life Armstrong rekindled these friendships, and said about the experience, “That is the proudest moment, knowing that these three men made it to this country and contribute to this country.”

The recognition of the sacrifices these men and women have given for the personal freedoms of every American is boundless. In a time of conflict, it takes truly courageous individuals to step up and take the initiative to fight for what they believe. “Once there’s a war, you’re in it,” Oka said.

On Nov. 11, McNicholas thanked veterans with a breakfast and assembly, where those in attendance heard from WWII veteran Command Sergeant Major Henry “Hank” Armstrong, who fought in Europe. When he returned to the States, he said the “prettiest sight you’ve ever seen, The Statue of Liberty” greeted his boat in the harbor.

Contributions from Katie Limberg.

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